Chombu is one of the finest unclimbed mountains in the world. Well, I think so. Referred to by Doug Scott as the Matterhorn of Sikkim it stands isolated and proud, the only unclimbed 6,000m peak in north Sikkim. But it’s defences are formidable.
We were at 6,100m and as I tried to be sick next to the streaks of diarrhea outside our little tent the purity of the clear and crisp dawn was not lost on me, nor was the fact that the first rays of sun were catching the pristine summit 250m above us. Compared to what we had climbed thus far the ground ahead looked straightforward. But after the night we had just endured did we have the energy to continue? Would it be wise to try?
The promise to return
For Victor Saunders and I the long path to this point had started in 2016. After an initial negative response permits were on track to be granted for post monsoon (October) 2017. And then a border incident with the Chinese on the Doklam Plateau led to the evacuation of Indian border villages and dashed all hopes. To complicate matters I was then diagnosed with cancer of the anus. Plans were rearranged for post monsoon 2018 but more cancer problems and a major operation in August 2018 put paid to that.
We finally made it in pre-monsoon (April) 2019 but winter 2018/9 was the worst for many years in North Sikkim. Many roofs collapsed, the approach road was blocked by avalanches, the weather and climbing conditions were awful and we never actually set foot on the mountain. In 35+ years of greater range climbing that was a first for me. But Chombu looked amazing. The locals told us that October was likely to be a better time of the year and so we ended up back in Sikkim in October 2019. Three years in the making and two trips to the same objective in the same year. Chombu had got under my skin.
Victor and I have a saying that all the best trips start with maximum stress. By this yardstick the October 2019 trip was destined to be a good one before we had even left the UK. There are three main hurdles to climbing peaks like Chombu; permits, weather and climbing conditions. We were due to leave on the Saturday and come the Thursday morning our long promised permits had still not been issued. So concerned were we that Vic and I had gone to the extent of fully arranging a fall back plan to climb in West Nepal. We had a deadline by which we would change objectives if there was no positive news from Sikkim.
With two hours to spare the news came through that the Chief Secretary of Sikkim had personally approved our trip. Phew! Barap, our amazing agent in Gangtok, sounded as relieved as us. And he assured us that arranging food, porters, a cook, kitchen boy and sirdar in two days would not be a problem. It had gone right to the wire. We felt sure it was going to be a very special trip.
When the baggage carousel stopped there was only one bag missing from the Delhi to Bagdogra flight. A friendly official concluded my bag must have been viewed as suspicious by scanning staff in Delhi and got me to sign a form authorizing the breaking of the padlock and rifling through the contents. Remarkably it arrived unscathed at Gangtok the following day. Only one day wasted. Phew! It really did feel as this was destined to be a very good trip indeed.
It rained for the entire duration of our time in Gangtok.
‘Very heavy monsoon this year’ we were advised.
‘A key bridge has been washed away and only locals are being allowed into the Tangu valley.’
The expedition was dead in the water if we couldn’t start our walk-in from the village of Tangu. But with the bridge down the only access route to Tangu was through a sensitive army camp. Getting foreigners through when Indian tourists were banned seemed an almost insuperable problem to us.
That task was entrusted to Baichung, our Liaison Officer who was to drive us to Tangu in his jeep and arranged to meet us at 8am the next morning. At 9am he arrived explaining that his vehicle had been rendered undriveable by a hit and run driver in the night.
Baichung, a devout Buddhist, was sufficiently concerned by the way things were going that he advised that we should seek advice at Gangtok monastery to ensure he and the expedition were not to be plagued by bad karma. Fortunately a monk decreed that all would be well and we continued on our way. I’m not sure what would have happened if he had sensed less positive vibes.
Baichung had caught sight of the vehicle that crashed into his but been unable to stop it driving away. Remarkably though , as we drove out of Gangtok, he spotted it being shiftily repaired at a roadside garage. The driver admitted everything, agreed to pay for repairs and we continued on our way.
Being as we were destined for a tourist free area it struck us as unfortunate that the vehicle which had been secured to replace Baichung’s jeep had ‘Tourist’ emblazoned on the side.
I have no real idea what miracles occurred during our drive to Tangu. Approval from yet another senior official was secured, a special pass of some sort was granted, the guard at the army camp gate let us through, the two white skinned men (well – one and Victor) were told to keep their heads down to minimize spotting by any difficult officials …. and the villagers of Tangu couldn’t believe it when we arrived. No Indian tourists were allowed and yet these two westerners had arrived in a vehicle with Tourist emblazoned on the side. Max respect to Barap and Baichung. No idea how they did it.
The weather looked reasonable, the snow line was high and with our porters looking sprightly under their 50kg loads we started the walk to base camp in high spirits. We hoped we had learned lessons from our April attempt, conditions looked good and we felt we were in with a good chance of success.
The longest spell
14 days later Victor and I were sat in our tents at base camp listening to the rain. After much debate we had agreed that, in a combined 75+ years of expeditioning, this was the longest spell of properly bad weather than either of us had ever experienced. We had managed to acclimatize by spending a couple of nights at 5,600m to the south west of Chombu but the wading through soft snow to get there had been utterly exhausting and the frequent big avalanches coming down our intended line on the west face had been enough to put us off.
We had also managed to break a pole in our mountain tent and drop one of our walkie-talkie handsets into a lake. Aside from that though all had gone well and we were ready to climb. Our reconnaissance had focused our minds on what was safely climbable and all we needed now was a good enough weather window to try and climb our chosen line on the North Side of Chombu.
The rain continued. Days at base camp passed slowly. After bed tea at 6am the only reason to emerge from our sleeping bags was for breakfast at 8.00, lunch at 13.30, afternoon tea at 15.30 and dinner at 18.00. Each eating/drinking session lasted perhaps 20 minutes and so, much as we tried to force ourselves to stroll around in the rain occasionally, the total time outside our sleeping bags each day was often in the region of 80 minutes.
The way we had prepared for downtime like this was markedly different. As a large brained academic Victor spent much time trying to improve his French by reading complex French novels on his Kindle with frequent reference to the electronic dictionary if there was a word that he didn’t understand.
Conversely I had prepared with light and easy expedition reading and had brought along a selection of books from a charity shop in Matlock. In choosing my main criteria was that each book should be between 1 and 2 inches thick and not be too deep or meaningful. I must admit though that after reading Hard Girls (about prostitutes being murdered and having caustic soda, poured down their throats) several times I was beginning to regret my choice and find whiling away time listening to the rain rather wearing.
I spent a lot of time lying down staring vacantly at the tent fabric.
On 10th October the weather suddenly improved. It was quite a shock as Chombu revealed herself in all her new snow covered glory. And it was quite a shock to emerge from our lethargic bad weather routine. After three years and so many setbacks it seemed that the time had finally come for us to leave base camp with the intention of climbing Chombu.
Two days later we had waded a long deep snow couloir, crossed a long, easy angled, glacial plateau and were ensconced in our little mountain tent at the foot of the north face. I didn’t think I had ever seen a face with so much snow plastered on it.
“Have you ever climbed a face like this?’ I inquired peering up at the striking flutings and snow plastered steep buttresses.
‘No’ was the response. It appeared this would be a new experience for both of us.
The energy sapping nature of the deep powdery snow was such that we moved one at a time from well below the bergschrund. As the ground steepened it presented particular problems. Everything, almost regardless of angle, was plastered with perhaps two feet of powdery snow, beneath which there was more snow which was only slightly firmer.
Making upwards progress was painfully slow and insecure. Victor, being a very light chap at less than 60Kg, preferred an approach that stayed on the surface as much as possible whereas I, at a relatively porky 70Kg, was reduced to clearing the top two feet away and trying to fashion steps that would support me out of what lay below.
This meant that I spent much of my time standing on 70 degree ground clearing away the snow overhang above me before teetering up.
My mittens froze like a couple of claws while the snow that I swept away inevitably found it’s way down my neck. I can but say thank you Berghaus for their latest kit that kept me warm and dry through this.
Midway through the afternoon Victor, who had been out of sight in the mist, hurtled into sight and ending up dangling over a vertical cliff. He had fallen a good 20 metres. There was quite a long silence and then:
‘My first ever Himalayan fall’ he announced rather sheepishly.
In 39 years of Himalayan climbing that struck me as rather a good record. It also said a lot about the terrain we were trying to climb. Grading it was impossible. It was like a powdery early season Cairngorms grade V route times 10. Most memorable. If the snow had been crisp and frozen the ground would have been straightforward. But as it wasn’t. And we moved at a snail’s pace.
After two days of this kind of terrain we reached the base of smooth slopes leading to the north summit. At the foot of the face I had looked up at the flutings and wild snow mushrooms and felt our chances were against success. Now though we were above these features and after all the bad weather frustrations and appalling climbing conditions the weather was perfect, the summit was only 250m above us and the open slopes ahead caught the sun and promised much easier and quicker climbing conditions. Resting at the belays I could sense that we were gaining height in relation to the peaks around us and much as the climbing itself was a million miles away from the technical ground I love I could sense enjoyment and confidence levels rising.
“It didn’t taste right”
We shared a freeze dried food pack that evening. Both of us commented that it didn’t taste right. There was a nasty chemical smell and flavour to it. But preparing food at altitude is a hassle. We had melted vast quantities of powder snow to create enough hot water and waited 20 minutes for the food to rehydrate. Both of us were tired and just wanted to eat and get our heads down ahead of what promised to be a great day tomorrow. Victor eats remarkably little and after just two or three spoonfuls he handed over to me. I persevered and ate the rest. It was awful but neither of us had ever been made ill by freeze dried food before. I think we just kind of assumed our bodies would cope and extract some energy from it and we could go to sleep.
It was about an hour later that it became clear that all was not well. I shall not go into detail but the night was indescribably bad. Victor shat himself just the once whereas my colostomy bag filled, leaked and needed emptying right the way through the night. Poor Victor was a star in helping sort out urgent issues but by the morning we were out of toilet paper, had used up most of the pages of my book and I had only two colostomy bags left. The area outside the tent was an embarrassment and inside only slightly better.
Most worryingly I had felt my energy levels decline sharply throughout the night. I felt absolutely awful. What to do? After so many delays and heartache here we were in perfect weather and within striking distance of the summit we had dreamed so much about for so long. And yet this wasn’t a little spot of diarrhea. We had clearly poisoned ourselves. Seldom had I felt more physically drained and nauseous. In eating something to give ourselves energy we had clearly had exactly the opposite effect. We discussed our predicament at length.
The next decision
After all we had gone through to get to this point the temptation was to continue. But big mountains can be dangerous places. Not only did I feel ill and exhausted but, at the current rate of consumption, I would definitely run out of colostomy bags if we continued. But little comes out in normal high mountain circumstances. And what’s a little poo compared to achieving your goal of the last three years? We discussed various possibilities but we didn’t dither long. The decision came quickly, if painfully. I really did feel a sense of despair after all we had done to get to this point.
Particularly after the health challenges of the last couple of years I had wanted to proved to myself that I could still climb great Himalayan objectives. And, much as the reason we were going down was nothing to do with those health issues they added to the sense of failure somehow. All the effort those medical professionals had gone to in order to get me back in good condition and I failed because of a gone-off freeze dried meal. Ugh!
We abseiled slowly and safely down the line we had come up, both being surprised at how steep the ground was. It was 48 hours before either of us were able to eat anything again. By the time we arrived in base camp I could hardly put one foot in front of the other. I regarded that as confirmation, if confirmation was needed, that we had made the right decision. Another attempt was out of the question. The army would not allow us to extend our permit and bad weather had returned anyway. It was time to begin the long journey back home. Chombu had won.
Chombu had won.
Back in the UK, whilst struggling with heavy bags, I managed to fall completely down the gap between the train and the platform at Cromford station. It somehow seemed a fitting end to the expedition.
And so how do I feel now about Chombu? Well, in two trips not once did I crampon up any firm snow or swing my axe into any firm ice – the weather there was rubbish, the climbing conditions were rubbish, the permit situation was rubbish ….. but curiously neither of us are dismissing the possibility that we might return.
There is something very special about Sikkim. And something extremely special about Chombu.